It's generally accepted that the record industry is dying, or at least changing radically. Dan Kennedy got to witness its decline firsthand, lucking into a dream job at Atlantic Records just as album sales hit an all-time low and executive greed reached a record high, triggering massive layoffs, unheard-of belt-tightening on artist contracts, and plummeting morale. Fortunately, Kennedy had other things to fall back on: A regular contributor to McSweeney's and GQ, and the author of the memoir Loser Goes First, Kennedy transformed the death of his rock 'n' roll fantasy into the scathingly funny Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, turning what could have been another tired eulogy into a funny, darkly comic wake. From accounts of graying middle managers who cling to their Genesis tour jackets and hold serious meetings about Ryan Cabrera's hairstyle to satirical lists like "Inappropriate Greetings For Middle-Aged White Record Executives To Exchange," Kennedy cuts to the heart of what it's like to work in the business of "cool" with the lamest people on the planet. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Kennedy about his time in the trenches, why CEOs are the real rock stars, and how helicopter pooling might just save the record industry.
The A.V. Club: Basically what you're saying is that the record industry is totally awesome and couldn't be doing better, right?
Dan Kennedy: [Laughs.] Clearly. Are we done here? But yeah… Um, I was a little disillusioned with my trip to the intense front lines of rock 'n' roll. To put it mildly.
AVC: How did this book come together? Were you taking notes for it while you were working there?
DK: It wasn't anything I set out to write. It wasn't like, "I'll take this job and this will be a really great book." The job was a sincere undertaking. I kind of feel like it was my last stab at finally trying to be a normal adult and fit into the world—you know, where you go to an office and come home to a loved one, and then you just repeat that until death or retirement, and everybody regards you as well-adjusted. There was a part of me that thought, "Finally I'll fit in, and I won't be this freak with a shoebox of cash under his bed—the guy who's just kind of making his way through adulthood, like a cross between Wooderson from Dazed And Confused and the geek from the record store. I started writing it once everything started falling apart, and I realized… Not to get all "an angel told me so," but I was like, "I think this is why I'm supposed to be here, to record this thing that's fading away, that not everybody gets to see."
AVC: Have you heard from anyone at Atlantic about it?
DK: Um… [Long pause.] I just felt like Nigel from Spinal Tap, because I was sitting here chewing my gum, trying to figure out if that was a sarcastic question. [Laughs.] Yeah, I haven't really heard any flak from anybody. I changed everybody's name—though obviously I didn't take a ton of time with it. I wanted to be cool and anonymous to everybody, and I hope it was written with heart. The only name I took delight in was changing Bill's name to "Dick." He was really mean to my girlfriend—that's what it really comes down to. He's this really evil man who was rude to my girlfriend when she first came to a label party. So I was like, "I know what I'll do: I'll write a book and call you 'Dick.'" [Laughs.] Of course, I never had the balls to stab him with a compass or a pair of scissors. He was always mean to people—and I thought, whatever, that's part and parcel—but then he was mean to my girlfriend, who's the sweetest person and didn't even want to go to this stupid party. And he was a complete dick to her. So I was like, "I'm not much of a fighter. I should just write a deeply satirical portrait of him and release it in five countries."
AVC: Do you think he has any idea?
DK: If he doesn't, he will when we start running the 60-second commercials that say, "Buy the book that lets the world know that Bill is a complete dick."
AVC: Among the names that you didn't change were pop stars like Fat Joe and Jewel. Did you have to seek their permission to use their stories?
DK: Legally, I think you're allowed to do that with pop stars. As soul-crushing as it sounds, once you decide to do your art on a public level, you're sort of in the public domain. I should let readers know that I'm not an accredited lawyer. I'm just a man with a basic understanding of the law, and my legal advice is for entertainment purposes only. I did have to cut a personal check to Celine Dion's publishing company—which was a career high for me as an Internet writer. I approached them and said I wanted to use the lyrics of a Celine Dion song. It came out to $141.
AVC: That seems like a bargain.
DK: I know! You could probably afford to release a whole Celine Dion greatest hits album if you just did it in text.
AVC: It seems like maybe Jewel would balk at you talking about her struggles with selling out, or the part where you make fun of Matchbox Twenty's manager for getting irate if you don't put their name in lowercase.
DK: Well, if that guy's upset, I'm sure I'll hear about it, because every time he was, I did. But now if he calls me up and yells at me, I can say something really sassy, because I'm not on the payroll. But I don't know. I'd like to think in my heart of hearts that if Jewel read that account of selling her songs [to commercials], she would say, "My thoughts exactly." I don't think about her all the time. I just thought about it now. I don't spend a ton of time thinking about Jewel. A fair amount of time. Maybe 30 hours a week.
AVC: Just in general?
DK: [Laughs.] Just thinking, like, "What would she think of me?" You know, that's not unique. It's called being an American male.
AVC: Most people who read Rock On will probably want to know exactly how a guy with no experience managed to land jobs working with Motown and Atlantic. Is that just dramatic shorthand, or were you really just that lucky?
DK: I'm really stupid lucky. I'm totally Rain Man. I live my life in small, concentric circles. I lose my keys 10 times a week. I never use all the money on my Metro card, and I always have to buy a new one—and then I find them all at the end of the month. But when it comes to dumb luck, I've been super-lucky. One of the first guys I met in New York was a guy named Dave Statman who worked at Atlantic, and he became a really great, generous friend. He was the one who called and said, "Motown wants me to produce this spot, but I can't do it because I'm on contract with another label. Do you want to do it?" I was in New York City for all of two months, scared to death of how I was going to get up on my own two feet in this city. I was just like, "Well, I love music, and I've watched TV a lot and seen a lot of commercials. Sure, I'll try it." They may as well have asked me, "Do you want to be a freelance orthodontist?" I was so desperate that I would have been like, "Uh, sure. It's just braces and headgear, right?"
AVC: Doesn't your streak of luck clash with your image as—as Jerry Stahl called you—"the hipster Proust of youthful loserdom"?
DK: Well, here's the thing about luck: You'll get the Internet job, but you'll get it two months before the dot-com bubble bursts and everybody crashes. You'll get the job at the big label with the expense account and nice salary, but as you're moving your stuff in, 20 guys are moving out, and you realize that your industry is dying. So the sweet deal with luck is not without its Achilles' heel. Terrible timing cancels it out.
AVC: Given the choice, is there a particular era at Atlantic you would have rather experienced?
DK: I suppose it's easy for me to romanticize the '70s, the heyday when it was still located at 75 Rockefeller, and Zeppelin was making records. That's the time I picture from listening to albums in my youth. But at the same time, it's funny to get sentimental about a period in the record business, because what you're really getting sentimental about is that period of American rock 'n' roll. No matter how much you want to romanticize it, the record business has always been a thing where guys make obscene profits on artists' work. So it's funny to romanticize that process.
AVC: So what's different about the modern industry that's triggered its supposed decline?
DK: Apparently at some point, the record business turned into some 45-year-old white guy with a law degree and a masters in marketing, who has a tan in the middle of winter and three houses, and he calls music "units." Somewhere, something got lost.
AVC: Are you one of those who takes pleasure in the toppling of corporate rock labels, or are you the opposite, like you think file-sharing and bands adopting the Radiohead model is unfairly killing labels?
DK: I think this is America, and there are free markets, and nothing is unfairly killing anything. This is America, right?
AVC: Well, yeah. Ameri-KKK-a.
DK: [Laughs.] You know, any other business in the world would have said, "My God, there are millions and millions of people who are showing this incredible demand for our business, and they want it in these files. They're trading amongst themselves and trying to set up ad hoc networks to do it. How can we make that a better experience and have them come over to our side?" That's all they would have had to do. That's all Steve Jobs did. The first time you tried to download stuff on Limewire and Kazaa and got partial files or weird mixes, you started getting disenchanted. Then Steve Jobs came along and said, "Hey, iTunes. Buck a track. There's no partial files, and you won't get booted off." And he sells three billion songs. But the majors see that as bad business, because they know that on those three billion songs, they could have made $60 billion by selling CDs at $20 for those three songs you really want. As long as you're addicted to a 1,621 percent profit margin, you're going to keep finding a way to hang on to it. But you're gonna go down with the ship. It's like a parable.
AVC: Beyond the labels, you suggest that it's also the artists who have started to think like that. There's a really poignant scene where you're in the Motown archives looking at a picture of the Four Tops, and you say, "They will play what they play because it's in their blood, and they will play it whether or not the world showers them with millions." Do you think bands like that even exist anymore?
DK: I think they do. There should be no mistake: While this is a tough time for the music business, it's not a tough time for music. It's a great, exciting time for music. You listen to enough wealthy guys with offices the size of my apartment tell you that it's a tough time for rock 'n' roll, you might start to believe it. But if you go downtown in pretty much any city with a scene, and tell every kid lined up outside a club that it's a tough time for music, they'll look at you like you're mental. And old.
AVC: Do you think it's possible for bands like that—who "will play whether they're showered with millions or not"—to survive on a major record label?
DK: I suppose it's a matter of sticking to your guns. We've seen enough bands make up their own rules and do it their own way, bands that proved that you could say no to the shampoo commercial and live. The exciting thing today is that there are so many other options. Who would have ever thought that you could form a band and distribute your songs worldwide from your apartment, without even stuffing envelopes?
AVC: You also take "ironic" bands like The Donnas and The Darkness to task, asking, "Is there anything sincere about hipster irony?" But is it even possible to be a "sincere" rock band any more without coming across as ironic, or just stage-y and going through the "rock star" motions?
DK: I think so. You can see a lot of bands that aren't trying to have a "wink" about what they do. Go see Iggy and The Stooges. Go see The Rollins Band. Arcade Fire doesn't seem like they're having a big "Ha ha." There are probably more bands that aren't into hipster irony than are into it. Which isn't to say you can't have fun, right? But yeah, raising your hands up with the old devil horns and screaming, "All right! Are you ready?" I don't know.
AVC: Right. Can anyone pull that off these days without it coming across as ironic?
DK: Exactly. I don't know. If you were to honestly go out there and do that? Bands from that period can probably pull it off sincerely. But you're right. It's a philosophical question. Like, "Can one attend a show and actually, honestly request 'Free Bird'?"
AVC: Several scenes in the book—like the one where you watch a video by a new band your boss preemptively declares is "going to be huge"—indicate that stardom is dictated from on high. What do you think are some of the factors that determine who's going to be a star?
DK: You know: Is their manager huge? Is the label already in bed with their manager's huge act? I've heard executives go, "Great band. What are their merch sales like? They're doing $1,600 a night in hoodies? We gotta talk to these guys." [Laughs.] I mean, do we? Maybe the Gap needs to talk to them.
AVC: You also suggest, via an anecdote about Jewel doing a song for Schick razors, that the directions of albums—and sometimes even whole careers—are dictated by upcoming ad campaigns. Rather than just the serendipity of finding the right song, you actually structure the song with the ad in mind. Um, you're just kidding, right? No one would ever be that shameless and crass, right?
DK: [Laughs.] Well, most executives in most industries are known for not being shameless and crass. I'm afraid that was the one exception. But yeah, it's obviously become a huge model. Kimya Dawson told me this story about how someone called up The Moldy Peaches, asking about doing a track for a Domino's Pizza spot. And they were like, "Uh, sure." [Laughs.] Like, "Have you ever listened to our music?" So they just wrote a handful of 20-second snippets about cheese. Of course they didn't get the job. But uh, yeah: Form a band, write an EP about Right Guard—or a shampoo that's also a conditioner—and get out there on the career path, man.
AVC: One of the most detrimental issues you raise is the exorbitant salaries and extravagant lifestyles of record executives. How much of that would you say is responsible for the industry's problems?
DK: Well, contrary to popular belief, I'm no senior business analyst. But having said that, all I can say is, something is obviously wrong when you're sticking 11 guys from a hip-hop group in a mini-van, and the head of the company is taking a helicopter to see a band at a club a half-mile away, and the head of marketing is wearing sunglasses in the conference room and calling people "baby."
AVC: So why do you think industry types decided that they were the rock stars?
DK: I guess the day you walk in and sign on the dotted line and realize that you have $50 million with a buyout clause, you go, "Dude, I need some shades, a pimp stick, and a sweet fucking white fur coat."
AVC: Do you think that's a problem on all levels of the industry? That "the suits," A&R; guys, and maybe even their assistants think they're rock stars just by association?
DK: I really think it's only in the upper reaches. The assistants are all really cool and—ironically—totally dialed into the culture that the company is trying to act like they understand. The only card-carrying members of that culture are the assistants and younger management. I don't think it's an epidemic. I think it's the top five or six guys who make an obscene amount of money for an industry that's in decline. You're talking about four or five guys who fire 2,000 people, but still get a $3 million annual bonus. The math answers the question. Are the people making $40,000, $50,000, or even $100,000 a year freaking out and acting like rock stars? No.
AVC: So where does this leave actual rock stars? Do they even exist any more when they're just part of a brand or lifestyle?
DK: They have to exist. You watch Thom Yorke on stage, I don't think that guy has a careerist thought in his head, and I think that's why everybody in their audience loves them. They can feel that. I think there's tons of people that completely embrace everything they love about so-called "rock stardom."
AVC: How about when they're willing to, as you say about Linkin Park, "rethink flipping off The Man for an extra $45 million"?
DK: In my optimistic heart of hearts, I have to hope that that was just a brilliant business move. That they said, "Clearly we'll never get this, and we'll get released from our contract."
AVC: So it's not indicative of a deeper philosophy of "the money comes first"?
DK: I hope not. But I'm still a naïve enough guy that when, like, a ring of cops gets busted in Brooklyn for taking cash and drugs, I'm like, "What?! They're policemen!"
AVC: So okay, smart guy, what are your suggestions for saving the record industry?
DK: Well, it's all outlined in my six-point system… [Laughs.] I think in the book, I say the first step is to include two $5 bills in each CD as a "deluxe premium edition" packaging. I also suggest helicopter pooling.
AVC: What about your personal rock 'n' roll dreams? Can we expect to see you pull a Neal Pollack at some point?
DK: No offense to Neal, but it's my promise to the kids today that they won't have to endure me trying to rock 'n' roll. You know, I tried, but the thing about music is, I can't write songs. And I'm not a very good guitarist. But overall, the thing about music is, I just get bored. If I play it for about 20 minutes, I'm pretty satiated. And you can't really quit in the middle of a show and go, "All right! Thanks very much! You guys have been awesome, but I just want to, um, go read for a little bit, then maybe get some laundry done. Also, I might actually make a salad. I feel like I haven't been eating that great lately. Anyway, good night!"